Stakes high for Ole Miss in SEC Tournament

Published 5:47 pm Monday, May 22, 2017

HOOVER, Ala. — Ole Miss’ players don’t need to be reminded what could be at stake for them in this year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament.

The Rebels (32-24) may be playing for their NCAA Tournament life when they get a rematch with No. 20 Auburn on Tuesday (4:30 p.m., SEC Network) in their tournament opener at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The Tigers (34-22) took two of three from Ole Miss over the weekend in Auburn.

“You hear it all the time,” first baseman Nick Fortes said. “It’s hard to block it out, but we know we have to win no matter what.”

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How accurate that statement is won’t be known until the NCAA field is announced next Monday, but hanging around a few days in Hoover can only help boost a postseason resume that’s bubbly. Ole Miss, which was a 3 seed in regional projections put out by Baseball America and before its series loss to Auburn, is 13-20 against the RPI top 50 but finished 14-16 in SEC play during the regular season.

Ole Miss’ series-salvaging win over Auburn on Saturday bumped the Rebels to No. 32 in the latest RPI rankings, putting themselves on the fringe based on recent history. Seven SEC teams with losing league records have made the field of 64 the last five years, but all of them had an RPI inside the top 30.

A win Tuesday would move Ole Miss into the double-elimination portion of the tournament starting with a matchup with top-seeded Florida on Wednesday. A loss would send the Rebels home to sweat it out until Memorial Day.

“(Winning Tuesday) would definitely help,” pitcher Brady Feigl said.

If his players are uptight heading into what could very well be a must-win game if Ole Miss wants to extend its season beyond this week, head coach Mike Bianco said he didn’t sense it during Monday’s workout.

“I think they get it,” Bianco said. “And I think this tournament, because it’s such a grind to get through it, you can’t look forward. You’ve got to just be here tomorrow and play a baseball game, and I think they’ll understand that.”

Thompson again

Ole Miss’ offense will face Auburn’s Keegan Thompson for the second time in a week after having a rough go of it against the Tigers’ right-hander Thursday.

Thompson cruised through six no-hit innings in Auburn’s 4-1 win, striking out eight before a weather delay forced him out of the game. Only two walks kept Thompson from being perfect against Ole Miss through 87 pitches.

“He was really sharp. Had really good command with the fastball,” Bianco said. “I thought the fastball beat us a lot where I don’t think our guys saw it. Not on the radar gun but sneaky fast where balls at 91 or 92 we were getting beat on.”

Thompson’ plus curveball made his fastball more effective as he often used it as an out pitch to finish off most of his punchouts by getting the Rebels to chase. It’s easier said than done against Thompson, whose 2.30 ERA ranks sixth in the SEC, but Ole Miss’ hitters said working more favorable counts this time around is a necessity.

“He has electric stuff. He has big-league stuff,” second baseman Tate Blackman said. “It’s obviously hard to lay off the good curveballs when he throws them, but if we can really see him up and really get after his fastball, I think that will be the main key to success against him.”

Bortles, Rolison earn SEC honors

The SEC announced its regular-season awards Monday with a pair of Rebels earning recognition.

Third baseman Colby Bortles was named to the All-SEC’s second team while left-hander Ryan Rolison was named to the All-Freshman team. Mississippi State’s Brent Rooker, the first SEC player since 2000 to hit 20 home runs, 20 doubles and drive in 70 runs in a season, was named Player of the Year while Kentucky’s Nick Mingione took Coach of the Year honors.

Bortles, who’s started all 54 games he’s played, is hitting .270 with a team-best 10 home runs and 42 RBIs. Rolison, who cracked the weekend rotation early in the season, is 6-3 with a 3.06 earned run average in 10 starts and has allowed 57 hits with 64 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings.